As Milos Raonic accurately put it after it was over, Thursday’s match between the 25-year-old Canadian and 22-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem at the ATP Tour finals in London was more than just a regular round-robin match.
It was, for all intents and purposes, a knock-out quarter-final. And after Raonic’s fairly routine 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory, he became the first Canadian ever to reach the semi-finals at the year-end championships.
He also – at least temporarily – becomes the No. 3-ranked male tennis player in the world.
“Yeah, I did a lot of things quite well today. I stepped up when I had an opportunity in the tiebreak. I stepped up at the beginning of the second set and the end of it. There’s a lot definitely to be proud of, playing under that kind of pressure, ’cause I really wanted to get out of the group stages and I wanted to give myself a chance in the semifinals,” Raonic told the media in London at his post-match press conference.
If current world No. 1 Andy Murray defeats Stan Wawrinka Friday in their final round-robin match, that number will be carved into the record books permanently as a watershed year-end accomplishment in the Canadian’s career.
Raonic finishes second in his group, with the undefeated Novak Djokovic finishing first. They won’t know who their Saturday semi-final opponents will be until late Friday night, when the other group’s players wraps up their round-robin play.
Unlike the straightforward scenario between Raonic and Thiem, who were helped by the injured Gaël Monfils losing both of his matches and ceding to alternate David Goffin of Belgium for the final one Thursday against Djokovic, everything is still up in the air on the other side.
Here are the scenarios to watch Friday.
Raonic had a special guest sitting with his large entourage Friday in the person of former coaching consultant consultant John McEnroe, who made a brief stopover in London Friday on his way to a seniors’ event in Italy. McEnroe practiced with another Raonic advisor, Carlos Moyá, and watched Raonic warm up earlier in the day.
Asked during his on-court interview about the merits of having three coaches (although McEnroe, technically, is no longer a coach), Raonic had a ready answer.
“That’s why you have three guys, If the other two aren’t right, hopefully one will be,” he said.
If the Canadian meets Murray, as most expect, he will have the opportunity to turn the page on some unfortunate outcomes during a season which could actually have been even better, had he been able to stay healthier.
“I’ve played Andy many times this year. I haven’t gotten the better of him. He’s been playing well. He’s been playing a lot of matches,” Raonic said. “I think the one thing that I might have is how much he has really on his shoulders right now, a lot of consecutive matches, and as well what he’s playing for. I have to try to do my best to try to accentuate that as much as possible in my own favour so I can really get the most out of myself and hopefully be able to get on top of him for once this year.”
Despite Murray’s current lofty status, he was the top player the Canadian had the most success against over the last few years. But Murray has defeated Raonic all six times they have met in 2016 even if Raonic was rarely at his best for those meetings.
The Scot was on his way out of the Australian Open semi-finals back in January when Raonic was playing some monstrous tennis and had the match under his control – until he re-aggravated an adductor strain. Raonic could only hobble to the finish line.
In the final of Queen’s Club, a Wimbledon grass-court warmup event in June, Raonic had Murray on the ropes but just couldn’t quite finish the job.
A few weeks later, in Raonic’s first career Grand Slam final at Wimbledon, he was a little undone by the occasion as Murray cruised to a straight-sets victory.
At Cincinnati this summer, Raonic put up a rather confused effort in the semi-finals against Murray that presaged his desultory second-round loss to American qualifier Ryan Harrison at the US Open a few weeks later.
In their most recent meeting, in the Paris Masters semis two weeks ago, Raonic didn’t even make the date. A reported small tear in his quad caused him to default the match, giving Murray the victory that allowed him to reach the No. 1 ranking for the first time in his career.
After his second round-robin match against Novak Djokovic Tuesday, in which he struck his groundstrokes as well as he has all year despite the narrow defeat, Raonic said the quad had not been causing him any trouble – at least not to that point.
He looked in fine form against Thiem, whose loopy groundstrokes put him at a bit of a disadvantage on a quicker indoor court. Raonic never surrendered a break-point opportunity, was 11-for-15 at the net, and controlled the proceedings with his serve.
He now awaits his next opponent, having already gone further in the year-end event that perhaps even he expected.
And, as a bonus, he got to meet this slightly familiar face.